Spray and forget

A clear, comprehensive policy on pesticide use and awareness about its harmful effects can help in solving the problems

 
Published: Friday 30 June 2000

Spray and forget

Pesticides have dominated the Green Revolution in India, so much that pesticides have become synonymous with plant protection. Only a few realise the problems associated with their use. Mira Shiva, head (policy), VHAI, sums them up:

- There is no particular policy for pesticides and the government wishes to continue its use. It would like to encourage integrated pest management (IPM) programme, but there are no resources.

- The farmers have been fed with the idea that without pesticides the harvest will not be good. Now the government has to point out the adverse effects and suggest alternatives.

- Physicians in health centres across the country are not aware of pesticide-related health hazards. There is no facility to check pesticide residues in blood or food crops.

- There is a lack of awareness about the chemical content in pesticides. Only the generic names of pesticides which are banned is known. Not their brand names. In some cases, the antidotes or remedies are not clearly mentioned.

- There is lack of consumer awareness about pesticide-laced food crops.

Singh of VHAI sees a reason for the government not drafting a comprehensive pesticide policy. "One has to agree that the pesticide lobby is very strong and obviously they will see to it that nothing harms their interests," he says. In fact, newspapers that reach the grassroots level are awash with advertisements urging farmers to increase use of pesticides, he says.

Another concern voiced by M C Diwakar, joint director (plant pathology), directorate of plant protection, quarantine and storage, ministry of agriculture, is related to pesticide review. "After a thorough analysis and debate on the subject, the existing Insecticides Act, 1968, and the Insecticides Rules, 1971, framed thereunder have to be suitably amended to keep a check on the unrestricted use of pesticides," he says. Only safe and eco-friendly molecules should be registered and highly-toxic pesticides should be phased out and banned as soon as possible, he adds.

Lobbying for more
Discounting the charge that a very powerful pesticide lobby is working against ban, one of the high-ranking officials of the Faridabad Central Insecticide Board (CIB), on conditions of anonymity, explains the "strict" procedure that prevails before any pesticide company is given a licence. Certain tests are carried out on lab animals -- first mice and at a later stage dogs -- before any pesticide can be exported or imported. It is checked whether the pesticide can have immediate effect in, for instance, 30 months or any long-term effect. The experiments are carried out to check, among other things, neurotoxicity, metabolism and mutagenicity Epidemiological studies are also carried out to identify and assess risks and chalk out a risk management approach. "Only then is the licence given," he says. "I do not agree that pesticide residue can cause neurological problems. About folic acid I have no information," he adds.

"To say that pesticides are behind all neural disorders is incorrect. I feel pesticides are needed for our food security. Either we die due to lack of food or 50 years hence we die of cancer. Personally, I think the latter is acceptable," says the official. Singh refuses to buy the argument that pesticide use is important to meet the country's food demand. "Pesticide use has gone up by more than 27 times, while food crop production has only grown 3.3 times in four decades, the base year being 1960-61," he says.

Regarding pesticide registration, the CIB official says, "New applications are few, mostly for herbicide. The number of applications for insecticides have also reduced. It is because IPM is getting popular." Lest we forget, the official contends that pesticides also earn the country foreign exchange from exports to Germany, China and other countries. As far as review of pesticides and their effect is concerned, there are no laws that might make such activity mandatory, says the official. Only once in 8-10 years, after media reports appear, are review committees formed to study the effects.

IPM: a solution?
"During the Green Revolution, we gave pesticides as an input along with seed and credit facilities. It should have been used as the last resort in case there were problems. Nature itself has provided us with ways to solve such problems," says Diwakar.

Now there are alternatives like ipm which are being promulgated but the deep-rooted myth and attitude of many agricultural scientists and field workers that pesticides are indispensable is hampering its spread, he says. "Although there are no magic remedies to counter the problems in spreading IPM at a faster pace, the mission has to be made stronger by roping in committed people. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research should have a pro-ipm thrust in their syllabus. A better coordination system also has to be developed between researchers and field officers." As IPM is a knowledge-based approach, it requires proper blending of traditional wisdom and modern scientific knowledge, he says.

Singh calls for "de-education of the ill-educated" and "re-education about harmful effects of pesticides" through publicity programmes.

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